Knock Down The House

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We watched this last night. This morning we watched Theresa May resign, evoking everything she didn’t do as something she did and ignoring her years long systemic failure in favor of a romanticized view of the nightmarish slog her premiership has been. Serendipity is a hell of a drug.

Rachel Lears began her documentary the day after Donald Drumpf was elected. She reached out to community organizations to find female candidates who weren’t career politicians but had been galvanized to run by the US side of the never ending political crapnado we all live in. In doing so, she found Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Amy Vilela of Nevada, Cori Bush of Missouri, and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia.

They’re an extraordinary group, united by a combination of drive and, bluntly, righteous fury. Swearengin is from a coal mining family and rightly states that the miners of West Virginia have been viewed as collateral damage so the country could keep running. Vilela is a deadpan Nevadan driven by the death of her daughter due to a lack of health insurance. Bush is a Ferguson activist challenging for a seat that has literally been handed from father to son. Ocasio-Cortez, now a household name, challenges a democrat who doesn’t even live in the city he represents. In one of the film’s best moments, we see her at her first debate with him. Or rather, the female counsellor he sends in his stead. Cowardice has rarely been louder.
The movie is full of moments like this and all of them work because Lears gets out of the way and lets the personalities of these four women speak. Swearengin and family hack weeds off a bandstand before giving an address there. Bush jokes about how well the photographer uses her melanin. Vilelauses her grief and anger as fuel even as she banters with her staff about the mess they leave. Ocasio-Cortez has to physically psyche herself before her first debate. None of them are droning career politicians. All of them are people damaged by a system which is designed not to care about anything other than it’s own continued existence. All of them have compelling stories. One of them makes it. 

That narrative is compelling enough but Lears constructs a more familiar, less interesting story. In doing so, she gets in the way in the exact way the first half avoids and the movie suffers for it. We see the primaries in a different order to how they actually unfolded, giving Ocasio-Cortez a frisson of Rocky-like determination as the others lose. In reality, she won two months before Bush’s contest and flew out to canvas for her. That’s a far more compelling, and less masculine, narrative than the ‘last one standing’ story we’re told. It’s a real shame Lears and crew felt the need to do this because it presents as uncomfortably close to the exact kind of dishonesty and complacency these four women have suited up to fight. It’s doubly ironic that this choice should be made for a documentary about an industry built on the importance of apparent action over actual action. Even more so when, in the almost entirely Ocasio-Cortez facing third act we see her skewer her opponent for that very thing in one of the few debates he deigned to attend.

Even then, Knock Down The House is an intensely inspiring, at times moving piece of work that captures the birth of what deserves to be a major political sea change in the Democratic party. It’s compelling, humane and funny. But, despite how it’s presented, it’s not quite the real story and demands further research. Perhaps that’s not a failing but a lesson; trust but verify. In God we trust, but when it comes to filmmakers, check the sources.

Knock Down The House is on Netflix now and is absolutely worth your time